23: Re-Introducing Exercise into my Life Two Years Post Concussion

I ended the last post I wrote explaining how I became headache-free for the first time in over two years through Terry Moore’s MyoWorx program.  What I didn’t point out was that my headache-free state lasted five seconds. 

Why?

My muscles were way too weak to stay loose for any longer than that, and my body and brain had adapted to a pattern of constant tension.  In other words, my brain perceived chronically tight muscles as normal. My muscles had been restricted for two years straight, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise my brain became used to this pattern. 

But suddenly I knew exactly how to break that cycle, and the first thing I had to do was stop lying down as a means of relief. I knew this would be the hardest part of the process because, up until this point, lying down – on a bed, a couch, my head reclined back on a chair, anything – had become the single most critical coping mechanism to getting through the day.  It was the only thing that gave me the slightest bit of relief.  My days were spent hunting for the next opportunity to rest my head against a pillow. 

An hour lying down meant I could tolerate maybe twenty minutes being upright before the pain would become intolerable again.  When I did the math, I probably only spent 2-3 hours a day fully upright.  That meant 21-22 hours per day with muscles not engaged; causing them to fatigue further and perpetuate the chronic cycle my body had fallen into. 

Terry told me lying down was the single worst thing for my recovery.  It was hard to hear, but I knew he was right.  Instead of lying down when my symptoms worsened, I now had to stretch… constantly.  Literally constantly.  My body needed to be told how to behave – incessantly reminded that my muscles were to stay loose and not tense. 

At first, stretching was just about the only thing I did when I wasn’t laying down. When I was dying to return to the safe haven of my bed, I’d force myself to stay upright, take a deep breath, and re-start my stretching routine.  This gave me a few minutes of relief and once my symptoms began to creep up again, I stretched again. 

I repeated this routine all day long, and, slowly but surely, I began to break the pattern of tension and have longer periods of relief.  At first I was headache-free for only five seconds but eventually I got relief for twenty seconds, then one minute, then five minutes and so on.  This meant my extremely weak muscles were beginning to get stronger. 

Movement, Finally

And what’s the fastest way to build up endurance in your muscles? Use them, Terry told me. 

So I did.  This meant, of course, taking the next very emotional and meaningful step in my recovery – I had to reintroduce physical activity into my life. 

I hadn’t exercised in over two years

Two years, one month and three days to be exact.  

There were the times during that period when I tried to, but I don’t count those because I could never sustain it, and it always followed with hours, even days, in bed with increased symptoms.  

This time it would be different.  Because now I had the tools to combat my symptoms when they inevitably creeped up after exercise. 

 Both of my brothers - Cam, left, and Colin, right - are swimmers.  Learned a thing or two from them! 

Both of my brothers - Cam, left, and Colin, right - are swimmers.  Learned a thing or two from them! 

Per Terry’s recommendation, I started with swimming.  He said swimming was the fastest way to build up endurance in the neck because of the buoyancy and how it works every neck muscle.  We devised a plan where I would sit in a Jacuzzi for 10-15 minutes to warm my neck muscles, and then I’d swim a few laps in the pool, and then end with my stretching routine in the steam room. 

I got in the pool for the first time on December 28th, 2015. Terry told me to start with two laps, but once I got in there I couldn’t help but do six.  I stretched in the steam room for around thirty minutes afterwards and felt pretty good.  I had a feeling I would crash later in the day because my body wasn’t used to this type of activity, and I was right. I did crash.  But it wasn’t anything compared to the crashes I had before Terry’s program.  And the best part was that I wasn’t upset about it.  Because I knew why it was happening.  I understood that this was a process, and that I had to work with my body to readjust it to handling more activity. 

The next day I did eight laps in the pool. 

Then I did ten.  Then twelve.  Fourteen.  Sixteen.  Skipped to twenty.  Twenty-four.  Skipped to thirty.  And then, all the way up to fifty.  Each time my symptoms were less intense later in the day and I’d feel relief for longer periods of time. 

Soon after I had success with swimming, I started incorporating other means of exercise like walking, biking, and skating.  In fact, my first week home after spending two weeks with Terry, I felt good enough to hop on the ice for a scrimmage with the high school team I was coaching.  Full-equipment, full-contact, sixty minutes.  Just one month prior, this was an absolute unfathomable concept. 

I wasn’t totally symptom free out on the ice, but that was okay, because now this was a part of my rehab program.  It was the lucky break I had been patiently waiting for… for two straight years. 

Within a matter of weeks, exercise went from being the biggest trigger of my symptoms and one of my greatest fears, to being one of the single most critical factors in my recovery and something I came to rely on for relief on a daily basis. 

The Benefits of Exercise

There were so many benefits to this way of life that I had sorely missed:

1.  Increased endorphins.  Enough said. 

2.  I was getting a major increase in blood flow to both my brain and muscles, carrying oxygen-rich blood that was incredibly important for the healing process. 

3.  Exercising is the most effective way of priming my muscles for an effective stretch

Think about it – what do you do before a sports competition?  You warm up your muscles with any combination of dynamic and static stretches, ladders, sprints, and more.  You do this so your body is primed to compete before the game starts, and to prevent your muscles from pulling or straining.  If you don’t warm up your muscles beforehand, they aren’t going to welcome manipulation as freely. Have you ever gone out for a run and felt like crap the first five minutes, but then you start to break a sweat, warm up and you fall into a groove?  It’s all based on the same concept.

If you warm up your muscles and get the blood flowing, your body will respond better to activity – whether it’s competing in a hockey game or getting an effective stretch in as part of your rehab. 

4.  Execerise also had a positive impact on my nervous system. 

It was good for it.  Over time it was going to help normalize my hyperactive sympathetic nervous system.  Physical activity naturally triggers your sympathetic nervous system – so if I continually pushed those limits and redefined what my body could tolerate, eventually the abnormal, hyperactive sympathetic response would become less and less pronounced.  This meant less pain, less twitching, less sensitivity, less swelling.  The idea is that my body would begin to adapt to a new normal.  A normal normal.  

5.  And finally, the last major benefit was the simple fact that I was able to do something I loved again. 

I was an athlete, born and bred, and I had been my entire life.  I desperately needed that part of my identity back.  I needed to move again - to feel my heart pumping out of my chest, blood flowing through my veins and sweat dripping down my face.  The experience brought me to tears, and after four months since my first few laps in the pool, it still hasn’t gotten old and I don’t think it ever will. 

I remember one day not long after I started this new routine, I got up early  and went to skate at the rink where I had been coaching.  I got in a good workout and when I returned home around 8am I found my parents in the kitchen fighting back tears. 

No words needed to be said…I went up to them and hugged them. Each of us were overwhelmed and overjoyed by a simple notion; one that for years felt unattainable and so far out of reach, but finally, after so much immense struggle and uncertainty, was resolutely upon us….    

I was getting better.